This has been an historic week for opponents of America’s costly and failed drug war. A federal judge found New York City’s “stop and frisk” law unconstitutional, and Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will stop spending billions incarcerating low-level drug offenders for long mandatory sentences. Both actions target policies with destructive impacts in African-American and Latino communities, and neither might have occurred had Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press: 2010) not reframed the debate around the war on drugs. If Harriet Beecher Stowe can be said to have started the Civil War with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, then Alexander’s book can equally be said to have triggered the end of the mass incarceration strategy in the United States.

When I heard Eric Holder speaking about too many people being imprisoned for too long for no truly valid criminal justice purpose, my first reaction was: I bet he has had a recent dinner with Michelle Alexander. I figured that only Alexander could convince Holder and the Obama Administration to finally do what should have been done years ago, which is to stop mass incarceration policies from devastating minority communities.

Alexander was not the first to make the connection between the drug war and mass incarceration of primarily young black men. Among prominent early critics of the drug war was current CNN commentator Van Jones, who co-founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in 1996 to target the human and financial impacts of mass incarceration in minority communities, particularly among youth.

But Alexander’s book powerfully combined all of the arguments and statistics connecting the war on drugs to the war on the African-American community. By identifying the drug war with politically unacceptable and hated Jim Crow laws, Alexander elevated the issue beyond drugs to the broader questions of social and racial justice.

The Timing Became Right

Alexander’s analysis has spread like wildfire since her book’s publication in 2010, and her message reinvigorated the debate about the drug war’s disproportionate racial impact.
And as proved with Stowe’s incendiary book on slavery, it took a confluence of inflammatory actions to get a federal judge and the Attorney General to put Alexander’s message into action.

In the past two months alone, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin, and the remarkable film on Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station, showed nationwide audiences how police even in the “progressive” Bay Area engage in vicious and destructive racial profiling.

Collectively, these actions put a dagger in claims of “colorblindness” in 2013. They created the political space for both a federal judge and Attorney General to challenge police violations of the constitutional rights of blacks and other racial minorities.

One also sees how Alexander reframed the entire debate by this: her book has become the starting point for all serious discussions of the drug war or disparate imprisonment of black men. After Alexander, the drug war became less about crime prevention and more about the New Jim Crow, a phrase which will always embody her legacy.

By her scholarship and passion, Michelle Alexander has greatly advanced the cause of justice. And done nothing less than change America.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of BeyondChron. He is the author of the newly released, The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, as well as Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century